"Sublime Labours": Aesthetics and Political Economy in Blake's Jerusalem (William Blake) (Critical Essay)

By Studies in Romanticism

  • Release Date: 2007-03-22
  • Genre: Language Arts & Disciplines
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FROM THE OUTSET OF HIS EPIC POEM JERUSALEM, BLAKE HIGHLIGHTS THE importance of aesthetic perception. Above the archway in the original frontispiece, Blake describes "A pleasant Shadow of Repose calld Albions lovely Land / His Sublime & Pathos become Two Rocks fixd in the Earth / His Reason his Spectrous Power, covers them above / Jerusalem his Emanation is a Stone laying beneath" (1:3-6). (1) Northrop Frye argues that Blake's opening image suggests a Druidic trilithon, which "represents a geometrical or abstract form of the perversion of the three classes" that Blake identifies in Milton and thus symbolizes fallen aesthetics: the "Sublime & Pathos" are "uprights" with "the fallen reason coveting them." (2) Similarly, David Baulch sees this as "an image of the divided aesthetic," and he notes how it "resonates with Blake's description of ... The Ancient Britons where he indicates the visible presence of a threefold division amongst postlapsarian humanity as the aesthetic qualities of the beautiful man of pathos, the strong man of the sublime, and the ugly man of human reason." (3) In addition to these canceled lines, Blake also stresses the notion of correct aesthetic perception and the integral nature of these aesthetic categories later in his preface to the first chapter, "To the Public," where he describes his ordering principles of this poem: "Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place: the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts--the mild & gentle, for the mild & gentle parts, and the prosaic, for inferior parts: all are necessary to each other" (3). In a poem that seeks to show how Albion (England) can become reunited with his Emanation, Jerusalem, the fallen condition is one of fallen perception. Blake thus begins Jerusalem by providing a model of correct aesthetic perception for his poem, which itself demonstrates how such perception can overcome the division inherent to fallen humanity. These opening plates of Jerusalem also emphasize the important associations that Blake attaches to aesthetic categories. In particular, Blake correlates the sublime with labor and the beautiful with repose, but he also connects his notion of the sublime with the ideal of unity. In Jerusalem, Blake makes it clear that the repose associated with the beautiful can be dangerous and that Los's task is to rouse Albion from his slumbers through his sublime labors. Blake describes himself as having a similar task, for he also has been roused to work: "After my three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean, I again display my Giant forms to the Public" (3). He wants the reader to love him for "this energetic exertion" of his talent, yet he also points out that the purpose of Los's (and his own) sublime labor is to create unity. Los must help Albion reunite with Jerusalem, and Blake wants his readers to reunite with himself and the Divine Body of Jesus: "I also hope the Reader will be with me, wholly One, in Jesus our Lord, who is the God and Lord to whom the Ancients look'd and saw afar with trembling & amazement" (3). The figure of the Divine Body of Jesus, which Blake develops as one of multeity in unity, thus becomes a sublime object, and, indeed, the sublime object of this poem.

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